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How Important Is Personality in Politics?


Whoever said that 'politics is show business for the ugly' was being disingenuous. The stars of BBC Parliament are far more image-conscious than the regulars of MTV. Simply watch Prime Minister's Questions; what was once a necessary assemblage of legislators holding the political executive to account has become a second-rate pantomime of vain middle class over-achievers. If one wants more honest performances and a less cliché-ridden script, I'd recommend flicking over to Keeping Up with the Kardashians instead.

Inevitably, one of the biggest complaints lobbied against MPs today is that politics has become too centred on personality, with insufficient attention paid to actual policies. The first criteria of political leadership is no longer ideological vision nor an Olympian grasp of the most minute policy details, but an ability to charm the press, tweet about X Factor, and look photogenic when eating bacon butties. Received wisdom now holds that 'charisma' is the difference between the politician who wins elections and the politician who loses them: ergo David Cameron's continued premiership and Ed Miliband's resignation to the backbenches.

And yet, as these faux-presidential figures become increasingly prevalent on the UK political scene something else also seems apparent - none of them have any trace of personality whatsoever. This surely is the great irony of a politics built around individual leaders; that aspiring politicians drop all of their own quirks and ideas in order to fit the mould of what they think an MP should be.

The story of today's standard route into Parliament is depressingly familiar: PPE at Oxford, a brief spell at a policy thinktank, followed by a safe seat in a constituency hundreds of miles away from where the MP in question actually grew up. Every opinion then invariably boils down to WWBD (What Would Blair Do?). The result is grotesque as discourse - what should be an integral part of the democratic process - becomes riddled with cheap, prepared soundbites, those slippery bits of speech intended to say as little as possible in the most inoffensive manner imaginable.

After a gruelling election campaign littered with inane expressions like 'hard working families' and 'long term economic plan', it was incredibly refreshing to hear Mhairi Black's maiden speech last week. In her first address to Parliament, the MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South railed against Osborne's draconian welfare policies, claiming to be 'the only 20-year-old in the whole of the UK the chancellor is prepared to help with housing'. It was a speech full of anger, passion, and at times, humour.

The joyous response to Black's speech from pundits and the public alike shows exactly what can happen when an MP departs from tired rhetoric. It affirms that those who are best able to grab the electorate's attention are not the politicians who spend a fortune on media training for fear of coming across badly on Newsnight, but rather, those who seem authentic. Those possessed of something called 'individuality'.

Behind such tensions of 'character' and 'personality' in politics is the difference between MPs willing to shape shift into whatever they think their constituents would like to see, and those who are fully secure in their convictions already. Mhairi Black made just this point when she quoted 'a personal hero' in her maiden speech:

'Tony Benn once said that in politics there are weathercocks and signposts. Weathercocks will spin in whatever direction the wind of public opinion may blow them, no matter what principle they have to compromise. Then, there are signposts - signposts that stand true, and tall, and principled. They point in a direction and they say "this is the way to a better society and it is my job to convince you why"'.

Thankfully the entrance of Black and other young, outspoken MPs into the House of Commons ensures there are still signposts standing - people unwilling to sacrifice their individuality or ideals to any party high command. Britain may turn in a better direction yet.

Liam Marchant

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